The Stations of the Cross are a series of 14 pictures or carvings, designed for devotional purposes, and depicting the incidents which took place in the last journey of Jesus Christ from his sentencing to death in Pilate's house to his entombment.
They may be seen in Roman Catholic Churches and Church of England Churches of the Catholic tradition all around the world, fixed to or hanging from the walls. And especially in Lent and Holy Week, they are the centre of a popular devotion which, through prayers, hymns and readings, takes the worshipper back to the final hours in the life of Jesus, in Jerusalem, and makes the events seem so much more real and meaningful.
It is thought that the Stations of the Cross arose out of the ancient practice of pilgrims in Jerusalem, who prayerfully followed the route through the streets from Pilate's house to Calvary, stopping at various points in the journey, Stations, to say prayers and read readings from the Bible or other sources.
Between 381 and 384 AD, a nun called Egeria, who came from the Atlantic sea-board of either Spain or France, travelled to the Holy Land and wrote a travel diary which still exists. In it, she recorded what she saw of the religious goings-on in Jerusalem and other places. Although not a modern scholar's precise record, her diary is an important source of information about Christian practices in the 4th century. She described what she saw, and in particular, what caught her attention - the unusual and the new. It is from the writings of Egeria and others like her in later years that we can build up a picture of how pilgrims marked the events of Holy Week, and out of the study of these practices and happenings, came not only the Stations of the Cross but also much of the impetus for reforming the whole Liturgy in the 20th century, recovering the integrity of the best early liturgy and making it available for use by modern worshippers.
In the 4th century, as indeed nowadays, most people were unable to manage a pilgrimage and travel to Jerusalem. The idea of a Stations of the Cross in every Church in every town and village in Christendom rapidly became popular. By the late Middle Ages, the Franciscans had made a big impact in bringing Christian piety to the ordinary people. It was the Franciscans who really popularised the Stations of the Cross. Remember, St. Francis himself is reputed to have introduced a Nativity scene at Christmas too, making the human content of the story that much closer to the home experience of ordinary Christians.
In a nut-shell, that is the main reason for the popularity of the Stations. They take us away from our world and back to hear and see the terrible events in Jerusalem. But, as you will see if we follow the Stations with appropriate prayer and devotion, the scenes also bring us closer to our own day, with its terrible suffering and dreadful executions. At their best, the Stations of the Cross hold together the death of Jesus and the Christian vocation to be his Body in the world of today. He is our inspiration and paradoxically, his death brings hope and peace and life because we believe it reconciles humanity to God.
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